From SFO to SoHo

Capturing Manhattan Through Photography

The camera shutter swiftly clicks away, capturing a man biking across the street among mustard yellow taxis. This photoshoot was one of my first assignments at the New York Times Summer Academy: shoot an action photo with a technique that blurs the subject to show movement.

The School of the New York Times Summer Academy is exactly what it suggests, an instructional summer camp held in the heart of New York City. With 88 courses to choose from, ranging from photography to journalism, the academy offers a unique learning experience for everyone. I took the Photojournalism as Art course, a two-week long program which is open to ninth through 12th graders. It covered nearly all aspects of photography, from how to use a digital camera to stylistic tips on shooting captivating photos as a journalist. My teachers, Jennifer Altman, a professional portrait photographer, and Skyler Reid, journalist and photographer, both led the morning and afternoon classes, and critiqued photo assignments.

Every day we would head out on a stretch of Broadway in Manhattan, surrounded by towering buildings, a two-story Trader Joe’s, Lincoln Center and Juilliard. Our assignments differed each class, from portraiture to action shots. After the photoshoots, the class would reconvene to edit and submit our photos to the teacher for review. The people in the area ranged from stern business people to French tourists to people selling $7 smoothies from trucks. The streets were composed of high-rise buildings, food stands and blooming trees, serving as the perfect backdrop and subject for my photos, which I was able to creatively use to tell an engaging story.

Since I usually had less than an hour for photo shoots, I stayed in the area between Columbus Circle and Lincoln Center. However, New York offers a number of attractions to visit and to take creative photos of, such as the observatory of the One World Trade Center and the striking 9/11 memorial. After riding the subway to Brooklyn, I stuffed myself with  fried cookie dough and steamed vegetable dumplings at the Smorgasburg outdoor food market. Finally, the High Line, a 1.45-mile elevated railway turned park, offered amazing views and photo opportunities.

When I realized that the class would be taught to use the manual function of our cameras, I felt blindsided. Unlike the automatic mode, functions to control the exposure and shutter speed must be calculated and set at the perfect ratio. This was something that I had never used before, and I felt like a complete beginner though I had been taking photos for years.

Following the first day of shooting, I felt useless. Looking back at my over-exposed photos with terrible composition, I felt like I lost the battle between myself and my camera. But going to class and taking hundreds of photos at each shoot every day made my photography skills progress exponentially.

After flying by myself across the country and living without my parents in a dorm for two weeks, I learned that I would have to push myself outside my comfort zone to have new experiences. This was the longest amount of time that I had spent away from home and in a completely new city, surrounded by strangers who soon became companions. Although I was unable to see that I would eventually be able to accomplish skills that I never knew existed, I reminded myself that there was no way I could improve if I didn’t try.  

Eventually, I was able to take blurry photos that looked purposeful, rather than accidental, shoot under varying conditions, and hone in on my unique style of photography. I aim to focus on the minute details of everyday life, as well as the distinctive characters that exist in the bustling world around me.

I left the Bay Area as someone who was cautious and enjoyed the comfort of feeling safe in my surroundings, but I left New York City confident and determined. On my return, as I jaywalked across University Avenue in my hometown of Palo Alto, there was a pep in each step, a keepsake from my trip to the city that never sleeps.